A story of strategy and teamwork... waterfowl style.
Waterfowling is a sport of planning and strategy. It's a thrill when the plans work and a great hunt is had, but it's a challenge when the best-laid plans fail, and it's back to the drawing board. Football is also a sport of planning and strategy; I guess that's why I like waterfowling and watching football.
The "crew" preparing the spread.
For both, calling the right play at the right time can produce great success; conversely, calling the wrong play at the wrong time can lead to complete failure. This is a story of waterfowl hunting Xs and Os.
THE PLAYING FIELD
Our hunting area in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains includes two small irrigation reservoirs about a mile apart. The reservoirs are completely drained by mid-summer and sit empty until the water is turned back on to refill them in the fall.
Grass grows in the dry reservoirs during the last several weeks of summer. A few years ago we noticed that when the water is turned on in the fall, it floods the grass, thus floating the seeds, and the reservoirs briefly become the closest thing to a flooded rice field you'll ever find in Montana. They also become a smorgasbord for local ducks and geese.
As in football, timing is everything, so each fall I ask the ditch rider, Leonard, to call me the day he turns on the water to refill the reservoirs. He's happy to oblige.
THE JV SCOUT TEAM
The third week in October, my boys Kevin, Erik, and Tyler were free on Thursday and Friday thanks to the school's annual teachers' conference. On Thursday, Kevin, a senior, played his last regular season football game, and Leonard called to tell me that he had turned the water into the reservoirs.
Friday morning found us set up on the shore of the upper reservoir in our willow and cattail blind. It was a perfect fall morning. Upon our arrival the geese left the upper reservoir for the lower one, never to return. The ducks left, too, but the few that returned made a bee-line for the knot of 1,000 coots floating in the middle of the rising reservoir--with the exception of the four we bagged, which included our first redhead, downed by Tyler.
I have no idea where the thousand coots came from. I'm certain, though, that they all received the memorandum to attend the Coot Conference on the upper reservoir the third week in October. Do coots and teachers share something in common?
As we sat in the blind, frustrated by the coots and disappointed by the geese, we realized that our hunt had become a scouting mission instead of a hunt. We were the JV Scout team. Based on our armed reconnaissance, we began to draw some Xs and Os in the sandy shore and devised a plan for Saturday morning. Back to the drawing board!
The plan centered on the classic fundamentals of divide, conquer, and divert. Sunrise was at 7:45 a.m. Erik and I would go to the upper reservoir, and we would be completely set up at 7 a.m., ready for 7:15 a.m. shooting time. Presumably, any birds we disturbed would fly down to the lower reservoir. Kevin and his two friends would be set up at the lower reservoir by 7:15 a.m.
Presumably, any birds they disturbed would return to the upper reservoir, where Erik and I would be waiting. Kevin and his friends would set up quickly, and we figured we would keep the birds moving between both reservoirs, giving both teams good action. It sounded great on paper--or in the sand, that is. With a new plan and new hope, our fists met in the middle with a yell: "Go Team!"
THE VARSITY TEAM
After Thursday's hunt by the JV Scout Team, we called in the Varsity Team. (Put on your announcer voice) Introducing the starting lineup!: #87, Safety and Wide Receiver, Kevin Evensen, #60, Nose Guard and Left Tackle, Brett Larson, #50, Linebacker and every position on the O-line, Kyle Horn!
Kevin, Brett, and Kyle are all senior players on the football team. On Friday night they learned that their team, the Choteau Bulldogs, were the Class 1B Division Champions when the Conrad Cowboys fell to the Harlem Wildcats. For the entire autumn during football practice, these three had talked about going waterfowl hunting together. It was time for the Bulldogs to hunt! Go Dawgs!
The game clock started to run at 6 a.m. when the alarm went off. On the count, Erik and I were off the line, headed to the upper reservoir. As we set up the blind and decoys, we bumped a few ducks and geese off the reservoir, but we were ready and in position (on the "O") when we saw the headlights of the Varsity Team truck drive up the gravel road toward the lower reservoir, right on schedule. So far, so good--the play was working as planned.
Kevin, Brett, and Kyle arrived at the lower reservoir and headed down the shoreline with their bags of duck and goose decoys slung over their shoulders, bumping the birds. What's packing and jogging four bags of decoys, guns, and ammo three-quarters of a mile when you're 18 and you've been pushing the blocking sleds all season?
and after. What a hunt!
The bumped birds headed back to the upper reservoir as anticipated, but the ducks--save one small teal bagged by Erik--bypassed Erik and me and returned to the Coot Conference in the middle of the filling reservoir. The geese would have nothing to do with us. This play wasn't going as planned!
We conceded that it was a broken play and did what all good players do--improvise. After waiting a while to make sure the Varsity Team was set up on the X, we walked around the reservoir, bumping some of the birds back to the lower reservoir. As in football, Erik and I, the JV Scout Team, were left standing on the sidelines to watch the Varsity Team "git 'er done."
In contrast, things were going as planned--even better then planned--for the Varsity Team at the lower reservoir. Even more exciting for Brett, this was only his second duck hunt and his first goose hunt. Kevin, Brett, and Kyle gave the following play-by-play of the action
from their line of scrimmage at the lower reservoir.
The ducks were trying to land on their X even before the boys finished setting out a mixed set of floating duck decoys, goose silhouettes, and goose shells. Brett and Kyle downed five ducks before Kevin could even run back from hiding the decoy bags in the brush. Then, while Kyle was retrieving one of his ducks, a flock of geese came on a bee-line from the east, gliding into the decoys. On "Take 'em!" Kevin and Brett downed three geese. Brett's first!
Kyle ran back from retrieving his ducks. Flocks of ducks continued to arrive, and the boys continued to drop them in rapid succession. The shooting was fast and furious--in fact, so fast and so furious that Brett ran out of shotgun shells. Kevin, a more experienced hunter, knew that if you're going to make the trip, there's no sense coming without plenty of ammo.
His pockets were full, and he quickly re-supplied his teammate. Then another flock of geese came winging over them from south, passing over their spread at about 30 yards. Three more fell to their guns. This was followed by more duck gunning.
The pre-hunt warm-up.
"Watch for the Hun in the sun!" As the sun rose, another flock of geese tried a stealthy glide into the decoys, keeping the sun at their backs, but the boys spotted them and bagged four more.
The ducks and geese had come in an all-out blitz package, but the Varsity Team had been up to the challenge and scored big. When the sun rose, brilliant in our big Montana sky, and all the smoke had settled, the boys had bagged nearly complete limits--a mixed bag of ducks, mallards, widgeon, a bufflehead, a goldeneye and Giant Canada geese.
The boys loaded their field trophies into the decoy bags. This game was literally in the bag! But they're called giant Canada geese for a reason. The boys staggered under the load of more than 100 pounds of geese and nearly two dozen ducks.
Earlier in the morning it might have been only three-quarters of mile to the hunting spot, but the added load made the trip back feel like four miles, with each team member carrying an offensive lineman on his back. The load of decoys plus geese was so heavy that Kyle's decoy bag started to rip.
The post-hunt celebration.
In the nick of time, Erik and I drove to the lower reservoir, stopping within a quarter-mile of their hunting spot, delivering relief to the Varsity Team like loyal water boys.
The team meal is a time-honored tradition. Following the hunt, we headed home for the post-hunt team breakfast. My wife, Roxann, cooked up hearty hunting fare of bacon, eggs, and pancakes.
We all ate heartily as the morning boys provided excited, gesticulating instant replays of the morning's hunt. Brett reenacted bagging his first goose. Kyle described how more ducks dove in as he was standing in the decoys, retrieving the last ducks he had downed. Kevin told of the last shell, long range, lone duck shot he had made. Breakfast was followed by cleaning the birds and taking several serious naps.
FRIDAY LIGHTS, SATURDAY FLIGHTS
In waterfowling, as in football, success comes from a good strategy, good play, good timing and a little bit of luck. On that Saturday morning in the fall, it all came together for Kevin, Brett, and Kyle.
For a lifetime, they will have those senior-year memories of winning the Class 1B Division football championship, running Xs and Os under Friday night lights--as well as the memory of great Saturday morning flights and the waterfowling Xs and Os.
EPILOGUE — Post Season Play
Two weeks later, the Varsity Team plus team member Anthony Skinner and Erik went up against another opponent: snow geese. Good work by the scout team put them on the X, and a convincing spread of 20-dozen Silosocks and some calling faked the snow geese into rushing into the line of guns when they should have been flaring deep for safety.
The team had another successful hunt to add to their senior memories and some more photos for the waterfowl yearbook.